Let’s Reject The Menstruation Taboo

Most young girls and women of childbearing age menstruate.  And no matter how traumatic, out of the blue or totally normal the experience was, we all remember our first period. Long after adolescence, however, we still find ourselves (and others) uncomfortable with the idea of talking about periods openly, which further encourages the menstruation taboo. We’re here to tell you that it’s time to dismiss this ingrained, negative mindset and get comfortable with period talk—for the sake of educators, parents, men and women everywhere.

Menarche (a girl’s first period) can occur anytime between the ages of 8 and 15; the average age in the US is 12. However, girls going through puberty are still not getting enough information about the changes that happen to their bodies. According to a recent Betty for Schools study, 47 percent of women felt unprepared and didn’t know what to expect when they first started their period. Only 22 percent remember feeling excited or happy, and 32 percent admit to feelings of shame. Fact is, most girls don’t receive a formal period talk before they actually start menstruating, and that’s unsettling.

The study, which surveyed over 2,000 women aged 16 and up across the UK, was released just after it was announced by the government that sex and relationship education (SRE) will become a requirement in ALL schools in England. Although these statistics are shocking, they make a lot of sense. The UK government just made sex ed mandatory in all schools, whereas in the United States only 24 states and the District of Columbia have it as a requirement. Translation: about half of American students may be getting inadequate or no sex education at all.

Photo by Jake Thacker

Furthermore, the research states that about two-thirds of women said that the sex education they received only scratched the surface of menstruation—the biological process of why and how it happens. The lessons didn’t offer much advice on practical situations, such as which feminine hygiene products are available or what to expect throughout your menstrual cycle. You know, some of the main concerns we all have while on our periods that aren’t exactly about pregnancy. To make the situation even more disheartening is that 73 percent of the women surveyed didn’t feel able to ask questions about periods during the lessons.

With that said, menstruation education isn’t always reliable at home either. The uncertainty of the appropriate time to start the conversation to the natural awkwardness from both parents and child can leave girls in the dark until the time comes for her to start menstruating. Providing vague and ineffective information on menstruation, such as, “You’re a woman now,” or “It’s happening so that you can become a mother one day,” doesn’t help young girls during this transition time. But that’s period talk taboo for you on a whole different level.

The lack of adequate sex education is not the only contributor to the cluelessness a woman faces concerning the changes to her body during puberty. The general stigma of menstruation factors in as well. We know the taboo exists because people go through great lengths to avoid using the term “period.” A survey found over 5,000 euphemisms in different languages. While this may suggest that menstruation taboo is universal across cultures, it’s important to note that there are cultures out there that don’t compound periods with uncleanliness, impurity and sin. For a good majority of women in the world, however, they are in for a long journey of battling this taboo.

Period talk may be difficult for some women to discuss with others without giggling, cringing or shying away from the topic altogether, while others are more comfortable talking about the bodily function openly. According to a survey called Talking About Periods – An International Investigation, 86 percent of women felt way more comfortable talking to other women about periods in comparison to the 34 percent that felt comfortable having the same conversation with men. These numbers are not surprising, but they should at least raise some questions. For starters, why aren’t we more alarmed that women don’t feel comfortable having a period talk with the men in their lives? Or even, why do we make excuses for men to disconnect themselves from the reality of menstruation?  

Being uncomfortable with period talk not only hinders educating both sexes on the topic but limits women from feeling able to voice real struggles with menstruation. According to Ida Tin, CEO and co-founder of the menstruation app Clue, “nearly 1 in 5 women in the world are so afraid of being ‘caught’ on her period that they have avoided an engagement altogether.” In the United States, one-fifth of women have had the stigma around periods impact their behavior with 20 percent of women having missed school, work or an event because they were so afraid of someone finding out that they were on their period. And that’s just in the US! In countries where there is limited access to supplies, girls end up having to miss school because of their period: 21 percent of girls are affected in Sierra Leone and 30 percent in Afghanistan, for example.

For such a ubiquitous and enduring biological process, it’s appalling to see the lack of conversation around the topic. But the silence on periods didn’t just happen. As mentioned earlier, menstruation taboo stems from a seemingly universal cultural and religious viewpoint that periods are dirty, impure and sinful. From that mindset manifests various forms of period shame that we see today. For example, some rural families in Nepal still practice an ancient tradition called chaupadi, confining girls and women to sheds when they are on their periods because they consider meneses “impure.” And in India, these beliefs encourage superstition-based segregation of women on periods: they are forbidden from entering temples, banished from the kitchen and forced to eat alone while they are bleeding. These extreme and subtle forms (e.g. discreetly hiding feminine products on the way to the bathroom) of period shame contributes to the distance women put between themselves and their period, leading to feelings of disconnection from their bodies.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde

So how do we combat period talk taboo? We need to keep talking about periods, for starters. Menstruation is a natural process that has been saddled with negative connotations for centuries. For a majority of the world it is still seen as unclean or impure, leading women to feel somewhat shameful and resentful towards the bodily function. But it’s time to leave this mindset in the past. We need to work on realizing the damaging effects period shaming has on women as well as the damaging effects not openly talking about periods has on everyone else.

As Ida Tin has said on period education:

“A good education lays great foundations for the future. [If we use] empirical evidence and educational techniques to show people how natural periods are, they will be able to talk about them more comfortably in day-to-day life.”

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This article is the first of our three-part Managing Your Fertility series. Stay tuned for our next articles in which we cover ovulation and sex drive and how they can affect your fertility management.

 

By: Shanice Perriatt